"The future is at our fingertips. . . . This is the age of computers," fifth-grade students sang in celebration of their entrance into the "information age."
More than 100 elementary school students, school officials and business representatives gathered Wednesday night to celebrate the first "Celebration of Family Literacy" of the public schools' Family Literacy Program.
The program, a joint effort of school officials, area businesses and residents, recently secured a donation of 20 portable notebook computers from San Jose, Cal.-based Librex Computer Systems Inc. Students from Jessup, Van Bokkelen and Overlook elementaries, all in the Severn area, will be allowed to take the computers home to complete their homework, help their reading and math skills, and send messages to their teachers.
A 2-year-old initiative, the Family Literacy Program seeks to break the cycle of illiteracy among Severn's children and adults through involvement in the schools and basic adult education classes. The project, based at Van Bokkelen, is geared toward the literacy needs and learning experiences of minority and poor families.
Since its beginning as a reading lab at Jessup Elementary, the program has expanded to include over 500 pre-kindergarten through second-grade students and their families from Jessup, Van Bokkelen and Overlook elementaries.
Program coordinators Laurie Ullery and Paula Despot consider family involvement in a student's education essential. "Parents are their child's first teacher," Ullery said. "Parents' literacy behaviors are important models for their children."
Charles Owens, principal of Van Bokkelen, said the computers create a common link that a child and parent can discuss. "I am truly excited about all of the possibilities and partnerships out there that are opening up for our children, families and communities and businesses," he said.
The literacy program used a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education to buy the first 10 laptop computers, then solicited companies around the nation to donate more.
Librex was the only company to respond. Twenty of the company's most advanced computers, each a $2,000, 6-pound,
portable V386X, arrived at Van Bokkelen to be distributed among the literacy program's three participating schools next fall.
Jessup, Van Bokkelen and Overlook are reportedly the only elementary schools in the nation that use notebook computers.
Students seemed undaunted by the sophisticated equipment, marketed by Librex as the "computer for the value-conscious mobile business executive."
On Wednesday night, students used software donated by Wordstar International Inc. to communicate with people in Tokyo, France, Mexico and Belgium.
"I like the colors on the screen and the excitement," said Dutchess Neal, an 11-year-old Van Bokkelen student.
Her classmate, Sha'Rae Gregg, 10, said she liked all of the activities the computers have and think they are important to "communicate with."
"It took these children all of 17 minutes to learn how to use these computers," said Peter Brown, public relations manager for Librex, "and it all began with a simple phone call."
Brown said the company receives dozens of phone calls from school officials throughout the country requesting donations of notebook computers. "But most of them want the equipment for their own use, or for the principal to use and then lock it up at night," he said.
Brown said the Family Literacy Program's project was the only one that made sense. "These kids need to take the computers home, and their families cannot afford it," he said.
Jessup Elementary Principal Preston Hebron, master of ceremonies for the program, described the surrounding neighborhoods -- Pioneer City, Warfield, Steel Meadows and Ritchfield Drive -- as a "mirror of the inner city."
"Drug and alcohol problems run rampant in these communities. Families are dysfunctional, and there are many single-parent households," he said.
He said that because many of the children who attend the schools are under emotional stress, the schools cannot educate "little Johnnie and little Johnette" without getting the whole family involved.
"All support services should work in conjunction with the schools to create a very positive bond," Hebron said. "These agencies and businesses should come together to create a better budget for the schools and improve achievement for the children and their families."